Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 10: Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Three Birds Alighting on a Field (1991)
Our Country’s Good (1988) is the most well-known of Wertenbaker’s plays. About the first fleet of English convicts in Australia discovering the redemptive powers of art, it often (quite rightly) features on lists of the most influential plays. But I didn’t really know much about her other plays. Hence, this week’s #ReadaPlayaWeek choice is her play Three Birds Alighting on a Field, which premiered at the Royal Court in 1991 and was directed by Max Stafford-Clark after a series of workshops.
The play, in broad terms, is about art. But so much more than that is going on (perhaps too much?). It’s about England and Englishness. It’s also about the nineties and trying to pre-empt that decade just as the art world tries to predetermine trends in art. Even though it can’t always do so. Biddy (Harriet Walter) has just remarried Greek businessman Yoyo, and wants to start collecting art because (1) she wants to help get Yoyo into a private club and (2) because she starts to see some substance beneath the style. There are a lot of other aspects to the plot but one of the more interesting bits is an analogy (acted out in the play) of the Greek myth of Philoctetes. Banished to an island because of his putrid wound, ten years on the people of Troy now need him and his bow and arrows back to help them win the war. Enter Stephen, a northern artist whose English landscapes were once hot with a London gallery but who then was ditched in favour for something more forcibly contemporary. Ten years on, that art is out and Stephen’s art is back in.
The art world is presented as fickle and pretentious because paintings bring people status. But what about beauty? As art dealer Jeremy says, ‘They get beauty thrown in. That’s a good deal at any price’.
The play’s form seems to have been influenced by Churchill’s Serious Money a few years earlier. Its scenes skip from museums to country gardens to the doctor’s office and so on. But despite its pace, I found the play slightly old fashioned. Maybe it’s because the first two scenes are so impressive. The play opens at an art auction: we see the auctioneer take a painting from a small starting price to over £1 million. At the end of the scene, he introduces a new piece: a neon light saying ‘ART IS MONEY-SEXY-SOCIAL-CLIMBING-FANTASTIC’. It’s so exuberant and contemporary and garish, seemingly like something out of a Mark Ravenhill play. Then there’s the second scene where we meet Biddy. A rich, middle class English woman, she confides (boastfully? Shamefully?) that once she became rich people started to become interested in what she had to say. Although there’s something highly unlikeable about that, there’s also a kind of punk attitude behind it. The audacity of a play’s central character introducing herself as someone (perhaps undeservedly) important I found to be fairly likeable. But then the play continues in a conventional way, moving through a lot of plot and introducing more and more characters who are, as I read, a critique on English society’s upper classes. Indeed, compared to Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’ a few years later, it seems (perhaps to be harsh) overstuffed and overpainted.
There’s so much of this play which is about Englishness, its attitudes to art and its politics. It bravely offers, in a time when the National Theatre (amongst other publicly funded institutions) were receiving sponsorship from Ladbrokes and MacDonald’s, a critique at the potential effects of business and art colliding. Furthermore, Wertenbaker’s interest in the future of England, both in terms of its political/financial and actual landscape is what makes Three Birds Alighting on a Field particularly fascinating and contemporary. Despite its potential flaws, this play’s exciting exploration of the art world, memorable characters and profundity makes it a worthy read.